Reorganization: Meet the 'new' OST
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The Office of Special Trustee (OST) is getting bigger. But is it getting better?

That's the question many in Indian Country are asking themselves as the Bush administration moves forward with its reorganization at the Department of Interior. Starting next month, officials will undertake what is being called a "massive outreach program" to educate staff and tribal leaders about the changes.

Key among tribal concerns is the expansion of OST's funds and staff. The agency's budget next year is being increased from $152 million to $275 million, a record amount.

Most of the money will be used to carry out several trust reform initiatives, including historical accounting projects for individual and tribal beneficiaries. A total of $130 million will be used in 2004 for this effort.

But there's also $15 million that will be used to support OST's reach into Indian Country. The agency plans to hire six regional fiduciary trust administrators and upwards of 80 trust officers who will work at the regional and reservation level. Their job is to ensure that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is meeting its trust obligations.

To be based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the trust administrators will be high-level executives who will oversee the trust officers. OST is currently in the process of defining its six regions, which may not necessarily overlap with the BIA's 12 regions, said special trustee Ross Swimmer.

"What we are trying to do is look where our beneficiaries are, where our assets are and try to create a regional trust area to capture those areas," Swimmer said in an interview.

The trust officers are described as the first point of contact for individual Indian beneficiaries. They will be the equivalent of a BIA superintendent and will handle routine inquiries about leases, land and other trust activity.

Swimmer plans to use the Concho and Anadarko agencies, in Oklahoma, as a testing ground for the trust officers. He said the agencies were chosen for the high number of Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders who live in the area. Most of the assets come from oil and gas resources.

"We can work out a lot of bugs that are going to be there," he said.

Although Swimmer hopes the changes will be made as smoothly as possible, there is potential for conflict. In particular, tribal leaders are worried about the power and authority of the trust officers.

"Who will they answer to directly? What will their be relationship to the BIA regional staff? What will the relationship be like between the trust officer and BIA officials who need to have final determination and authority?" asked Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) at a Senate hearing last week. "These are the types of questions tribes need answered in order to understand the complexity of the situation."

Historically, the BIA and OST have been at odds over the years. One reason, according to Kevin Gover, who headed the BIA during the last three years of the Clinton administration and who opposes the reorganization, is that OST has gone beyond its Congressional mandate to oversee, but not implement, trust reform.

"The problem was that OST did have authority and they were operating programs. And then they claimed to be an independent observer," he said at an Indian law conference last month. "Needless to say, BIA did not find them to be an objective interpreter of events, or even an objective reporter of events."

Disagreements between OST and BIA at the reservation level "really shouldn't happen," Swimmer said. If they do, the BIA's regional director will probably be asked to resolve differences, he said.

"I'm sure there will be some times where there are issues that will come up like that," he said.

OST has advertised for the regional trust administrator jobs, whose salary will run between $127,707 and $142,500. The closing period for the notices is June 23.

OST plans to advertise for the trust officer positions soon, Swimmer said, and hopes to have officers in place at the Concho and Anadarko agencies by the end of July. "The way we want to roll this out is agency by agency," he said.

Job Openings:
Regional Fiduciary Trust Administrator | Director, Trust Program Management Center | Deputy Special Trustee – Trust Accountability

Relevant Links:
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Office of Special Trustee -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Tribes oppose OST expansion into Indian County (5/22)
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' BIA (04/30)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Bunker metality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
At Interior, Indian affairs in a state of flux (02/11)
BIA agencies face new trust rating system (02/10)